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Tracy Stewart

Weekend Getaway in Palm Springs

Posted by Tracy Stewart on February 20, 2018
  • example of a mid-century modern home in Palm Springs, California, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo Courtesy of Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism
    Photo caption
    Stylish, mid-century modern homes—many once inhabited by Old Hollywood's elite—are a major draw to Palm Springs and accessible on various tours.
  • the exterior of the Frey House II in Palm Springs, CA, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo Courtesy of Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism
    Photo caption
    Frey House II was designed by Swiss architect Albert Frey, who helped create the mid-century aesthetic for which Palm Springs is known.
  • the old Tramway Gas Station in Palm Springs, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Steve Cukrov/Shutterstock
    Photo caption
    The Tramway Gas Station, built in 1965 by Frey, now serves as the Palm Springs Visitors Center and welcomes road trippers on their way into town.

Clocking in at just under a two-hour drive from Los Angeles, Palm Springs has long been the place for busy Hollywood types—and the rest of us—to relax and recharge. Its reliably sunny skies make for perfect afternoons of doing absolutely nothing by a pool. And that's enough for most who visit, though there's plenty more to do, should the spirit move you.

Where to Stay

It's easy to feel overwhelmed in a city that offers so many unique options. For those seeking calm, it's hard to beat the Hotel California. Family owned and operated, this 14-room, Spanish colonial–style boutique property tends to fill up fast, so advance booking is recommended. Original to the property is a 73-year-old rubber tree that winds around the pool and upper floor, acting as both sunshade and hummingbird hideout. Bicycles and grills are provided for guests.

Deviating slightly from the usual “Jordan almonds” color palette of Palm Springs, Sparrows Lodge presents a more rustic picture of mid-century California. The 20 guest rooms are cabin-like, with woodsy interiors and utilitarian touches that give the space a Japanese wabi-sabi feel. Bathrooms are done up in stone with horse trough tubs. The Barn Kitchen serves communal dinners on select nights (chicken on Wednesdays, steak on Saturdays). Bicycles are available to guests here as well.

A string of new hotels sprang up toward the end of last year in a previously neglected part of downtown, including the Rowan. There was slight fuss surrounding the arrival of the seven-story Kimpton property that some see as an interruption to an otherwise flat skyline. But once inside, guests are likely to enjoy these views, particularly from the rooftop pool (the only one in Palm Springs!) and outdoor restaurant.

What to See

Apart from sunshine and swimming pools, it’s probably the well-preserved stock of mid-century architecture that lures many to Palm Springs. On the drive from L.A., once past the Instagram-famous San Gorgonio Pass windmills, the old Tramway Gas Station building (built in 1965 by Swiss architect Albert Frey) first welcomes road trippers. This is now home to the Visitor Center, open 9–5 daily.

Some of the most toured homes include designs by Richard Neutra, John Lautner, William Cody, and the often imitated Alexander tract houses, stylish and inexpensive to build. This being Palm Springs, some visitors may be less interested in who built these homes than which Hollywood celebrities lived inside them. Elvis and Priscilla Presley's honeymoon hideaway (an Alexander house) is a must-see, as is the baby grand piano–shaped mailbox still at the end of what was once Liberace's driveway. For quick weekend visits, a guided tour by van is your best bet for getting a sense of the city without robbing you of valuable pool time. Palm Springs Mod Squad offers a mix of celebrity and architectural tours, including interiors, lasting about 90 minutes. Prices vary by type, and custom tours are available.

Where to Shop

It's entirely understandable that after touring so much mid-century design, you might get the urge to fill your own house with modular sofas and '60s tchotchkes. By some miracle, these items still manage to turn up regularly in local second-hand shops and at fairly reasonable prices. Poke your head in charity shops such as Revivals (several locations; proceeds support the Desert AIDS Project) and Angel View (several locations; serving children and adults with disabilities), and who knows what you'll find. The antiques malls along East Sunny Dunes Road require less hunting but at higher prices. And for a mix of mid-century oddities in furniture, kitchenware, and jewelry, Dazzles stocks everything you never knew you wanted.

Where to Eat

If you're craving a healthy start to the day, visit Nature’s Health Food & Cafe, which serves fresh juices and açai bowls alongside b-12 injections. For a more lively spot, Sherman’s Deli & Bakery is the place to go for brunch or a slice of rich, triple-layer San Jacinto cake, named for the local mountain and sliced just as big. Portions here are clownishly large, and it’s unlikely you’ll leave without a doggie bag.

Still riding high on the Rat Pack years, Melvyn's Restaurant is exactly what you'd expect to find in Palm Springs. Well-dressed customers order everything flambé, celebrate birthdays, and quietly drink martinis—all while someone plays Frank Sinatra songs on the piano. Order Frank's favorite dish, the steak Diane, a filet mignon flambéed tableside in brandy and topped with mustard-cream sauce.

What was once Merv Griffin's Resort and Givenchy Spa in the ’90s has been doing a brisk business as the Parker Palm Springs since 2004. It’s easy to get lost along the jungle-lined pathways of this 13-acre property. Those blessed with a sense of direction should make a point to find Counter Reformation, a 14-seat wine bar that sprang up during this year’s major remodeling effort. The bar specializes in small-production wines paired with small plates such as foie gras macarons and Black Forest ham, leek, and Gruyère croquettes.